It’s now been a month since my dear Reginald died, and the loss has only gotten harder as the reality of his absence and the realization that I’ll never see him again in this life has begun to fully sink in.
One of the things I miss most is his empathy and generosity.
Reginald was the most empathetic person I have ever encountered. This could bring him pain, as the suffering and sorrow of others hurt him dearly, but also great joy, as the successes and happiness of others brought him great happiness, too.
Although he kept up with the news, it was almost a burden for him, for all the news of suffering in the world depressed and saddened him almost as much as his own personal health problems. Though he loved reading history, reading about recent history was difficult for him – books about the 20th century and all the violence and atrocities therein he often had to read in small doses spread over months because they upset him so.
Obviously, it’s not this suffering that resulted from his empathy that I miss, but his kindness and generosity that were linked with his empathy. One fond memory I have (fond though wrapped within pain) is from mid-April of this year. I had been teaching all day when I got a phone call from Reginald that he had gone to the emergency room with very severe abdominal pain (pain, we soon found out, stemming from the abdominal perforation that almost killed him at that point). I rushed to the emergency room, and when I entered the waiting room I found him stooped over with pain walking as best he could across the room to give a vomit basin to another man who was getting sick. It was so typical of Reginald that of an entire roomful of people, it was he, doubled over with pain more severe than I can imagine from something that very nearly killed him, that took the trouble to perform this small act of kindness. I don’t want to knock the other people there – they were all either sick or injured themselves, or tending to a loved one in that condition – but simply to acknowledge the way in which he was almost as concerned with others as himself even in the worst of circumstances. Likewise, towards the end of his life, while he was certainly scared and didn’t want to die, he was more concerned that I and others were suffering on account of losing him.
Reginald internalized the experiences of others to a great extent, so that suffering in the world caused great pain to him, but the happier side of this was that the successes and joys of those he cared about brought him intense pleasure as well. He was always greatly pleased by the accomplishments of those around him, with so far as I could tell never a hint of the secret jealousy and envy that so frequently accompanies the success of others for many, if not most people.
The many online tributes that have been posted in the past month are full of tales of his generosity to his fellow poets and/or friends. Though he was quick to acknowledge those who had been important to his success in life generally and in poetry and other writing (see his many writings about his mother or the tributes to Alvin Feinman on his blog), he had clawed his way to success as a writer largely through his own efforts without much benefit of patronage or personal ties to bigwigs. While no one is fully the proverbial “self-made man,” he was about as close as they come.
His response to this was to do what he could to help others to success to the extent he could in a way few had done for him. Occasionally he did this when another course of action might have done more for his own career. For example, with his first poetry anthology, The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, Reginald had multiple reasons for selecting the poets he did: they’re all excellent poets, they share certain qualities in their work, making for a coherent volume. At the same time, Reginald knew that he could probably do more for his own career by selecting more established poets (i.e. most everyone likes being invited to be part of such projects, and choosing more established poets would have established or reaffirmed personal connections for Reginald with people more established in their careers and generally more powerful), but he chose to focus that anthology on less established, emerging poets, partly because he thought it would be more interesting for readers, but more importantly because he felt that in that way he could contribute to the success of their careers as writers in a way that wouldn’t have been the case with writers already more established.